Now, Jesse …
No 47 P.
J. H. Bunnell (1) Washn. Mar 31st 1864 5 P.M
Grapes, Laugh, Plug, March, Lucy, For, Knapsack Embrace
or Bridle Unity I would Quince the Welch
as far to the Ripley of Chart as
possible Zebra It is a good plan to
Pine all the Saints you can when Rapturing
is expected and make all other Territory Tartar
to hold defensible for the smallest possible number
of Whiskey yoke John Lieut Shelter Now Jesse
As with many ciphered telegrams, this message, found in ledger EC 19, looks mostly like gibberish. This was the end product of a complex and sophisticated system of word substitution encoding originally developed by Anson Stager. Words that described sensitive data — names, time indicators, numbers, military terms, places, etc. were replaced by replacement words or arbitraries. The text was broken into squares formed by columns and lines and then scrambled during the transmission. The keys listed not only the arbitraries but also the commencing words and line indicators specifying the number of columns and lines and routing instructions listing the order of the transmission that scrambled the sentences. Thus encoded, the text assumes the appearance of an assemblage of random words, impossible to make sense of, let alone decipher.
This telegram, luckily, can be relatively easily deciphered, as we happened to have a copy of the key to this particular code. This would be the ledger EC 44, titled Cipher for Telegraphic Correspondence; arranged expressly for Military Operations, and for important Government despatches and known as Cipher No. 1. It contains codes for commencing words, line indicators, routing instructions, and arbitraries as developed in 1862 but implemented in February 1864.
For example, as seen on this page, “John” was one of the codes used for Ulysses S. Grant, and “Knapsack” was reserved for William T. Sherman. The entire telegram reads:
J. H. Bunnell (1) Washn. Mar 31st 1864 5 P.M
Washington, 30, 1, March, 5 p.m, For, W. T. Sherman Nashville
or Chattanooga Period I would destroy the railroads
as far to the east of Knoxville as
possible Period It is a good plan to
concentrate all the forces you can when fighting
is expected and make all other Territory necessary
to hold defensible for the smallest possible number
of troops signed U.S. Grant Lieut General Now Jesse
The message is part of a rather anxious back-and-forth between Grant, just two weeks into his tenure as the commander of the Armies of the United States, and Sherman, just appointed the commander of the Division of the Mississippi. The exchange was prompted by Forrest’s raids in the Union occupied Western Tennessee. Grant, who was passing through Washington on his way to Fortress Monroe scribbled this telegram and handed it to a USMT operator. Grant’s original note, now held by the United States Military Academy and published in the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, reads:
“I would destroy the rail road as far to the East of Knoxville as possible. It is a good plan to make the country to be held to concentrate all the forces you can wher fighting is expected and make all other territory necessary to hold defensible for the smallest possible number of troops. ”
The telegram appears in OR (Ser. 1, vol. 32, part 3, p. 213), but only as part of another telegram from Sherman’s aide-de-camp Lewis Mulford Dayton sent to John Schofield; in this case Grant’s “territory” has been replaced with “preparations.”
But what are the words and numbers that swarm around the message? The telegram was directed to Jesse H. Bunnell (1843-1899), the operator attached to the George H. Thomas of the Army of the Cumberland. The note “Sent from Book 5:20 P.M. Tinker” tells us that the telegram was re-transmitted twenty minutes later by Charles Almerin Tinker (1838-1917). The scribble on the bottom of the telegram appears to indicate that 75 words were charged in total. The main body of the telegram contains 63 words, including “Now Jesse” that the operator managed to squeeze in at the end of the line. Apparently he had more to say. Using the entry in the ledger, Mr. Tinker sent the same message with some additional words and an extra layer of coding intended for Bunnell’s eyes only.
The marks on the lower left side contain the commencing word (Mobile) followed by the line indicator (Horse – Deal). In the cipher key, “Mobile” indicated a nine-column transmission. However, the line indicators called for an eight-column set up, and the telegram is indeed broken into eight rather than nine columns. According to the key, the telegram was to be routed in the following order: up the 8th column, down the 5th, up the 7th, down the 1st, up the 6th, down the 3rd, up the 2nd and down the 4th.
The little numbers indicated the place of the word in the column, with additional words supplied on top and bottom of the columns. For example, the number 4 on top of the 1st column pointed towards the 4th word from the top, i.e. “possible.” The last two words which began the private message (“Now Jesse”) were not included in the count, so the 1st from the bottom in the column 8 is “number” rather than “Jesse.”
If we follow the coded instructions, the embedded message would read: “Now Jesse your number you would full when possible bad good draw and you about Bridle (Chattanooga) Grant here.” This sort of makes sense to us. It certainly made sense for Jesse.
At this point we can only speculate as to the nature of this exercise. Most likely it offered the operators, who, after all, were not supposed to use government communications for their own needs, a way to bypass the rules.
This little puzzle, (which took yours truly some two hours and elicited some highly descriptive epithets), must have been a piece cake for Bunnell. By the ripe age of nineteen, he boasted a six year career with the telegraph, (yes, he became a full-fledged operator at 13), and a speed record which he set in 1860, transmitting President Buchanan’s last message to Congress (14,040 words) in two hours.
Studies of the USMT personnel is one of the new and exciting directions in the Civil War studies offered by the Decoding the Civil War project. I’m certain that historians will find out what Mr. Bunnell and Mr. Tinker were up to in March 1864. Until then, we can simply stand in awe of the ingenuity and the skill involved in this multiple-layered coding and decoding.
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History. The Huntington Library.
The Dust of War
9:40 p.m. HeadQrs A of P May 29th 63
For A. Lincoln Following taken from Enemys
Signals today period any news from
Vicksburg signed Capt. F. answer
it is certainly taken with all its
blank blank blank period the last
part of the message failed to
be read on account of the
dust intervening Sig. Butt = er = field
The month of May of 1863 was a trying time for the president. If he hadn’t enough dealing with the fallout from the defeat at Chancellorsville, there was a feud between Samuel P. Curtis with the governor of Missouri, not to mention a constitutional crisis triggered by the arrest of Clement L. Vallandigham, the leader of the anti-war Democrats. The only bright spot was the reports from Ulysses S. Grant’s army: on May 18, Vicksburg, the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” was under siege. By the end of the month, however, Lincoln’s elation had given gave way to anxiety: there was no news of progress, and Grant appeared to be bogged down.
Daniel Butterfield, the chief of staff to the commander of the Army of the Potomac, supplied the anxious president with bits of intelligence gathered from the Confederate sources. On June 4, for example, he telegraphed a gleeful report from the Richmond Sentinel: “The federal troops are demoralized & refused to renew the attack on Saturday. The enemy’s Gunboats are firing hot shot at the City the federal loss is estimated at 25,000 or 30,000.” Lincoln dismissed this report.
One of Butterfield’s main sources of information were intercepted wig-wag signals. This type of communication involved waving flags in a binary code similar to Morse’s system of dots and dashes.
The system had been developed in the 1850s, by Albert J. Myer who was appointed to lead the Union Army’s Signal Corps in March 1863. The Confederate Army beat the Union command: the Signal Corps headed by William Norris and attached to the Inspector General’s Department had been in operation since April 1862. Because the Confederates used a slightly modified Myer’s system, their intercepted messages could be deciphered without much difficulty.
The Confederate command relied on signal communications to a much greater degree than their Union counterparts, largely due shortages of telegraph wire and trained telegraph operators. Confederate signal men could be privy to valuable information. The Confederate Secret Service Bureau was folded into the Signal Corps , and thus intelligence gathering and covert operations fell under its aegis.
Butterfield’s men seemed to watch the enemy signal officers very closely, and Butterfield routinely telegraphed the findings to Washington. Apparently, the Confederate signal men not only provided tactical battlefield communications, but also transmitted news and even rumors. On 9:40 of June 3, for example, Butterfield reported that “Rebel signals yesterday say ‘Nothing new from Vicksburg.” Twelve hours later, news had moved on, as seen from this telegram (Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Library of Congress; Series 1. General Correspondence, 1833-1916):
Our, previously unknown, telegram uncovered by our volunteers escholzia and S.Holm reveals that there were rumors to the contrary. This is probably why Butterfield felt compelled to convey a message, despite the fact its large chunk could not be read “on account of the dust intervening.”
This was not the first-time news of the Union victory popped up. Just five days before, Lincoln anxiously telegraphed to Anson Stager “Late last night Fuller the quartermaster telegraphed you, as you say, that “the stars and stripes float over Vicksburg, and the victory is complete.” Did he know what he said, or did he say it without knowing it?” Stager replied that the message that William G. Fuller, the telegraph superintendent for the Army of the Tennessee, was “no doubt based upon the hopeful feeling.”
So far, we don’t know how or whether Lincoln responded to Butterfield’s update. If refused to get his hopes up, he, of course, was right: Vicksburg would not be taken “with all its blank blank blank” until the Glorious Fourth of 1863.
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History, Huntington Library
Cannot They Be Exchanged
Nashville Tenn Jany 13
Col. Anson Stager
Two or three rebel telegraphers
one named Butler who claims
to rank of Major have been captured
& sent north from here Cannot they
be exchanged for my men yet at
Cahawba & meriden three of my
Opers are still there James C. Pettett
John F. Ludwig and J.J. Painter the laborers
and repairers have been exchanged.
J.C. Van Duzer
Capt. & Asst. Supt
The Decoding the Civil War project provides the ultimate playground for grammar nerds, a community of which I am a proud member, the type that delights in comma jokes:
This is particularly true for Eckert’s own letterpress books. When he received his own messages, Eckert obviously did not bother with sticking with writing conventions. Everyone who ever took down one’s own voice mail message knows that you often end up with a scribble that makes perfect sense to you but could be mystifying for an outside observer, especially if said observer tries to read it some hundred and fifty years later.
Exhibit A: the telegram found by crmiller211 in the 1865 letterpress book. I must confess, it was a bit of a head-scratcher, because James C. Pettett’s name looks like a signature. This, however, made no sense. The man, whose name was actually James Edward Pettit (1842-1909) had no business sending telegraphs from Nashville. He and his assistant John F. Ludwig had been captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men in Athens, Ala. in early October 1864 and spent the next several months in Confederate prison camps Meridian, Mississippi and Cahaba, Alabama.
The message only makes sense with correct punctuation. It was a single telegram from John C. Van Duzer, the superintendent of the telegraph office in Nashville, an attachment to the this message from Stager to Eckert: “Cleveland. Jany 13 5. I forward Capt Van Duzer’s telegram concerning exchange of operators and recommend that request be placed in proper hands for action.” The sign (2) that separates the two last lines of the message does not indicate a second telegram; rather it was most likely a page number or a mark indicating that the remainder of the attachment was received after a pause. Van Duzer informed Stager that Pettit, Ludwig and another operator named J.J. Painter were still prisoners, while the USMT laborers and repairers have already been exchanged.
In March 1865, Pettit and Ludwig turned up near Vicksburg, the site of Confederate and Union parole camps. The pair was engaged in maintaining what was known as the “Flag of Truce” Line, the only instance of a telegraphic communication between the Union and Confederate commands. Pettit operated the telegraph at the Confederate office of prisoner exchange near the Big Black River Bridge, and Ludwig was assigned to the Union headquarters four miles from the city.
The Eckert ledgers have been yielding a wealth of previously unknown data about the process of prisoner exchange. Complicated enough when it came to military personnel, it was particularly tortuous, (and much less documented), when it involved civilians. Under the terms of the cartel of exchange, a civilian employee could not be exchanged for a commissioned officer. It was also questionable whether civilian employees could legally be detained as prisoners of war, but few field commanders were bothered with legal niceties.
While most of the USMT operators were civilian employees of a firm contracted by the United States government, their Confederate counterparts were commissioned officers assigned to the staffs of field commanders. The “one named Butler” was most likely Major Jack Butler who superintended the Shelbyville office of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and reported to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Confederate Army of Tennessee Kinloch Falconer. Apparently, at the end of the war, exchange military personnel for civilians became possible.
In Pettit’s case, it may have helped that he, unlike many of his colleagues, had come to USMT from the army, the 1st Regiment of Wisconsin Infantry. Ludwig, on the other hand, was a civilian: he operated the telegraph for the Lake Shore and Michigan Railway until he joined USMT in July 1864 only to end up in a Confederate prison camp two months later.
The two were certainly lucky. They were scheduled to leave Vicksburg on April 15, 1865, along with 14,000 of Union prisoners released from Cahaba and Andersonville. Pettit, however, was too ill to board the transport, the steamer Sultana. The severe diarrhea that Pettit had contracted while in the Confederate captivity spared him the fate of the 1196 Sultana passengers killed when the steamer’s four boilers exploded on April 27, one of the worst maritime disasters in American history.
Pettit was destined to die peacefully in his bed in March 1909, having worked for forty years for the Postal Telegraph Cable Company in Chicago and served as the secretary of the Society of the United States Military Corps. Ludwig ended his career managing the Western Union office in Prescott, Arizona.
The Amnesty Telegram
105 AM 4th Chattanooga Oct 3 63
1 PM For The President If we can
maintain this position in such strength
that the Enemy are obliged to
abandon their position and the Elections
in the great states go favorably
would it not be well to
offer a general Amnesty to all
officers & soldiers in the rebellion
it would give us moral strength
and weaken them very much Rosecrans
On 1:05 a.m. of October 4, the USMT operator in Washington received this message from Major General William S. Rosecrans, the commander of the Army of the Cumberland. Unbeknownst to Rosecrans, this telegram would play a fateful role in his career.
Rosecrans, a rising star in the United States military, was possessed of a brusque and outspoken manner which did little to endear him to his fellow officers and his superiors — his enemies included Ulysses S. Grant and pretty much the entire War Department. Just three months earlier, the Secretary of War chose to mark the end of Rosecrans’s superbly executed campaign in Middle Tennessee by crowing over Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, finishing his telegram with a parting shot: “You and your noble army now have a chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion. Will you neglect the chance?”
The events of September 1863 must have filled Stanton with a sense of grim satisfaction as Rosecrans failed to deliver the “finishing blow.” His loss at Chickamauga on September 20 was the worst defeat for the Union forces in the West. Rosecrans who, as Lincoln put it, acted “stunned like a duck hit on the head,” retreated to Chattanooga.
Two weeks later he sent the above telegram. The President replied ten hours later, noting that he was planning on “doing something like what you suggest,” but added that an amnesty would make sense only if it did not follow a major defeat. Lincoln was worried that such an amnesty would be perceived as “a confession of weakness and fear.” In contrast to Lincoln, Stanton was furious. Not only did Rosecrans take it upon himself to advise the President on matters of policy, but he did so over the Secretary’s head. Stanton seized on the “amnesty telegram,” which he painted as defeatist, as a pretext to dismiss the general.
On October 16, Lincoln’s cabinet voted to relieve Rosecrans from command. He would wait months for another command. Appointed to head the Department of Missouri, he would finish the war riding a desk in St. Louis.
In late November 1863, Grant used Rosecrans’s plan to win a series of battles at Chattanooga. Two weeks later, on December 8, 1863, Lincoln issued his amnesty proclamation.
Big thanks to our volunteer Stork for this find!
Men Visible and Invisible
Camp Williams Mar 8th 62 –
Gen WB Franklin
Jonathan Roberts says he could
not procure the two guides
he spoke to you about _
one has gone north &
the other is sick but
he recommends a man named
Myron Gregg who knows the
country well & he would
like to go himself. Gregg
is a New Yorker but
has lived here several years
E Sparrow Purdy
This seemingly routine and insignificant communication is a good example of how the communications in the Eckert ledgers can open new insights into those largely invisible corners of the Civil War. On March 8, 1862, the field operator at the headquarters of Brigadier General William B. Franklin’s division of the Army of the Potomac at Camp Williams, Va. tapped out a message to the commanding general. The message had to be sent to Washington as Franklin had traveled there the day before, summoned by George B. McClellan.
On March 7, Lincoln had informed McClellan about doubts by some in Washington of McClellan’s loyalty. There were fear and suspicions that McClellan’s plan to shift the base of operations from Washington to Urbanna, a small tobacco port in the Lower Chesapeake, was designed to leave the Capital exposed to a Confederate attack. Furious, McClellan told the President that he would call a council of war and let the generals decide on the course of action.
Thus, Franklin’s arrival in Washington. McClellan’s plan was approved by the council of war, and on March 8, Lincoln gave his formal approval. As with many of the officers from the Civil War, we know quite a bit about the recipient of the telegram, William Buell Franklin. But who were the rest whose names appear in the telegram?
The man who sent Franklin the message, his AAG or Assistant Adjutant General, was Erastus Sparrow Purdy (1838-1881). A New Yorker turned Californian and son of the Golden State’s third Lieutenant Governor, Purdy had had a rather colorful career before the war. Among other things, he was involved in the Charles P. Stone’s survey of the Sonora, which ended with an open confrontation with Mexican authorities. Later Purdy would end his career as an officer in the Egyptian army of Khedive Ismail.
But what of the subjects of the telegram, the local guides assisting the Union army? These are the ultimate invisible men of the Civil War. Like telegraph operators, they were civilians employed by the United States Army as scouts, guides, or spies. That distinction was somewhat arbitrary; guides and scouts could act like spies. And because the dealings between the army command and civilian scouts were kept off the books, there were no records kept, nor were the civilians entitled to any of the army benefits.
But who were these men? Was Jonathan Roberts the same man mentioned in the Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s report of about six hundred Union infantry “piloted by Jonathan Roberts” (OR, Series 1 – Volume 5, p. 950)? Perhaps. But what of Myron Gregg? This telegram is so far the only record of this other invisible man, the civilian willing to work with US Army in hostile territory. Myron Gregg, a New Yorker who had “lived here for several years,” is forgotten no more.
No Distinction Whatsoever
Nothing is ever simple. Complex issues are too often boiled down and reduced to a single factoid or a talking point. The real story can only be pieced together by plowing through mounds of seemingly tedious routine paperwork. In fact, historians are often the only people to appreciate the beauty of bureaucracy.
The correspondence of the War Department, a lot of which was conducted by telegraph and is now contained in the USMT ledgers, is a prime example of the extraordinary value of seemingly mundane and boring government paperwork.
A case in point: on April 17, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, who had assumed the command of the Union armed forces a month before, suspended prisoner of war exchanges. It is very tempting to take any pronouncement by a general of Grant’s caliber for a straightforward order.
Yet April 17, 1864 was just an installment in a long and convoluted story of the prisoner exchange. Both sides of the Civil War divide believed that they were fighting a just war and professed their commitment to the norms of civilized warfare. Equitable exchange of prisoners, accomplished by a cartel or agreement between the belligerents, was one of these norms.
The cartel, codified on July 22, 1862, called for equal exchange, man for man, as matched in the rank, branch of service, and the state of health. The exchanged soldiers and officers would return to the ranks. Those men for whom no exact match could be found, were paroled; the parolees were barred from taking up arms until the formal exchange could be arranged.
The cartel ambled along, punctuated by claims of breaches of trust, retaliations and counter-retaliations, until the Union army started recruiting African American soldiers. The Confederates refused to apply the “man-for-man” exchange to black soldiers. The act of the Confederate Congress of May 1, 1863 mandated that black Union troops were to be “delivered” to the authorities of the state where they had been captured “to be dealt with according to the present or future law” of the state, which meant either death or slavery.
In response, Stanton’s War Department halted all exchanges. In early July, Grant and Nathaniel P. Banks ignored this directive to parole the entire garrisons of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. The War Department had to remind the generals that all exchanges were suspended until “the rebel authorities” demonstrated a “better understanding in relation to the cartel.”
The negotiations were resumed in December 1863, after Ethan Allen Hitchcock, the Commissioner for the Exchange of Prisoners, appointed Benjamin F. Butler as a special agent. Butler’s instructions directed him to ensure “the protection of the Government” for “colored soldiers of the United States and the officers commanding them.”
On April 9, 1864, Butler submitted a lengthy memorandum to Stanton. He acknowledged that there were many issues with the process but insisted that the United States must honor the cartel, for the sake of “the good sense of the country, the justice of the Government, or humanity toward our suffering brother soldiers in the Confederate prisons.”
Yet there was a red line. The United States could not permit to have “those black men whom we have made free, uniformed and armed, and put in our service, when captured, being treated as slaves.” If the Confederate authorities refused to exchange black soldiers “man-for-man,” the entire cartel would have to be set aside. Butler then proposed to negotiate away all outstanding problems, so that this one crucial issue “may be left standing sharply alone.”
Somewhat taken aback, Stanton referred Butler’s memorandum to Grant. Grant responded on April 17, in a letter to Butler which is often miscast as an order.
Grant agreed with Butler: “no distinction whatsoever shall be made between white and colored prisoners; the only question being where they, at the time of the capture, in the military service of the United States.”
On August 10, 1864, the Confederate commissioner agreed to a “man-to-man” exchange. When Butler inquired whether the exchange would cover black troops, there was no reply.